It is odd to hear serious discussion of expanding MetroLink when the Metro system faces a $50 million shortfall and has been forced to cut back on existing services. Nevertheless, Metro is pressing ahead with a plan to expand services dramatically in the long term, including new light rail lines that would span Saint Louis city from north to south and reach all the way to Interstate 270 at four different points. Although the expansions would no doubt benefit some commuters, they would also prove exorbitantly expensive and likely attract few new riders. Rather than planning fanciful new light rail lines, Metro should implement more fiscally sound solutions to the area’s mass transit woes, such as expanded and improved bus service.
When Metro began planning the Cross-County MetroLink Extension in November 2001, it projected the cost at $550 million, with $43 million included for contingencies. However, according to a state auditor’s report in 2008, by that point the expansion had already cost $676.8 million, with total expenses expected to reach as high as $686 million. Although some of these extra costs were unique to the project — such as the extraordinary expense of building rail lines underground near Washington University — government projects are incessantly dogged by these kinds of unexpected expenses. It would be nearly miraculous if such a large undertaking as the proposed expansion were completed on budget.
Furthermore, the expanded lines will likely have lower rates of ridership than those serving the central city. In his groundbreaking 2005 book Sprawl, the historian Robert Bruegmann estimated that in order for public transportation to be used extensively, a city needs a population density of at least 10,000 people per square mile. Saint Louis city is well below that mark, with fewer than 6,000 people per square mile, but at least at this density, the MetroLink can operate at a manageable loss. Saint Louis County is barely a third as dense as Saint Louis city, at 1,950 people per square mile. With ridership levels roughly correlating with population density, we can expect to see far fewer passengers on the new lines than those serving the central city. This will force down the percentage of Metro’s operating expenses paid through fares, which already stands at a dismally low 25 percent, according to the auditor’s report, and will increase the system’s dependence on tax dollars.
In the heyday of urban Saint Louis in the 1920s through the early 1950s, the city boasted an impressive network of streetcars that ran all the way from downtown to Clayton and Washington University. The city was still very densely packed — almost 13,000 people per square mile at its height — so the streetcars provided an efficient means of getting around, and the system even turned a profit most years. However, as every level of government called for the construction of an increasing number of parkways and highways, the population of the city spread into the suburbs, and private automobiles and buses replaced the streetcar. It might be possible to make convincing counterfactual arguments that the political and business leaders of the past should have pursued a more balanced approach to transportation, instead of one that focused almost entirely on automobiles. Regardless of the virtue of those decisions, however, we must now live with the city and infrastructure that they left us, and no matter how much money is poured into new light rail lines, the population densities necessary to support them are not coming back.
The question then becomes: What is the best method of serving the transportation needs of area residents, given area dynamics as they already exist? Light rail suffers from high construction and maintenance expenses without the flexibility of automobiles or buses. Light rail is well-suited as a method of transport for traveling to large attractions such as Busch Stadium and the airport, but it will never be able to serve efficiently the multitude of smaller locations found throughout such a sprawling metropolitan area as Saint Louis. We would obtain a much greater benefit at a significantly lower cost if we instead focused our public transportation dollars on new, higher-speed bus lines, which are cheaper and far more adaptable than light rail. Although the expansion of light rail into every reach of suburbia may promise an end to traffic congestion and the revitalization of the city, it will ultimately entail spending huge amounts of money in order to transport far fewer additional passengers than are served by the lines already in existence.
John Payne is a research assistant at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.